Friday, May 31, 2013

10 Things I Wish My High School English Teachers had Taught Me

by Rachel Carey

Hey, everyone. My name is Rachel. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to intern at Prestwick House this summer, so it looks like you’ll be hearing a lot from me in the next few months! Currently, I am a rising senior at University of Delaware, studying English, with a concentration in Creative Writing and Sociology. I’m twenty and, like every other person my age, trying to figure out how to get where I want to be (which is hopefully amongst award-winning authors on the New York Times Best Seller List). But I digress …

There comes a time in all of our lives — excuse me for becoming a little clichéd here — when we look back and think about how naïve we once were. Most of us wish, at one time or another, that our current selves could go back to our awkward, confused high school selves to tell him or her that our lives are going to turn out just fine, regardless of the fact that we wore the same shirt two days in a row and got called out for it by fellow classmates.

For me, in high school, because I was obsessed with everything having to do with English, reading, writing, and books (this shouldn’t surprise you), the English classroom was my haven. My English teacher was kind of like a guardian angel — he didn’t really care about my outfit, and didn’t even know that I dropped my lunch tray on another girl’s head in the cafeteria; all he cared about was that I understood the thematic importance of Chief Bromden’s character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and could write a paper on it.

(For all of you wondering, my argument was that the Chief stood as a silent bystander while McMurphy did all of the dirty work in the beginning (e.g., his attempts to dethrone Nurse Ratched). Chief may be silent, but he saves McMurphy’s dignity by suffocating him after his lobotomy at the novel’s end. Loss of dignity through oppression seems to be a major theme in Kesey’s novel, and the Chief saves McMurphy and himself from having to deal with Nurse Ratched’s villainous ways any longer. He’s a hero, just like McMurphy).

Anyway …

My High School English teacher taught me a lot about books and a lot about myself. But there are a few things I wish that I had learned earlier in the English classroom than I did …

1. Organization is key.
First things first, I have to confess something: I was probably one of the most organizationally challenged high schoolers ever. Sadly, it took me a while to realize that it takes more than colorful sticky notes and labeled folders to automatically become organized (I’ve adjusted since high school and have started keeping extra copies of assignments on about fifteen easily accessible “clouds” on the internet). But it’s true — if students are organized on the outside, it is easier for them to succeed in the classroom. Akin to procrastination, the need to be organized often is not fully understood until a disaster happens or something is lost. However, fostering good organizational habits when the opportunities present themselves is never a bad idea.

2. Learning is more important than grades.
This is a difficult lesson to grasp. For students, the pressure to get perfect scores often makes it hard to come to terms with the fact that the value of the literature and the lessons learned are more important than the grades that come with them. Creativity (where appropriate), understanding, and learning should go hand in hand. Every once in a while a student misses the mark, and the surprise of getting a C when they were expecting an A can be frustrating. Most of the time, however, a good understanding of material will yield good results.

3. For some, Shakespeare’s language will never be easy to understand.
My High School English Teacher constantly reassured us that Shakespeare would (eventually) get easier to understand; as if one day we’d wake up enlightened and able to read Richard III in one sitting, understanding every word. But the truth is that some students have more trouble than others (I know I did). Of course, the fact that it is difficult doesn’t mean readers should just give up. There is a reason why Shakespeare is taught in essentially every High School English classroom. For students who are finding Shakespeare especially difficult, it could be helpful to point them in the direction of a book (like Prestwick House's "Side-by-Side" editions) that has Shakespeare’s English alongside Modern English. Of course, Shakespeare’s version should be the one that is mostly focused on, since that is where the literal meaning of his language is found. But, perhaps after studying the two versions side by side, students might actually grow to love Shakespeare’s phrasing, without that moment of panicked misunderstanding.

4. Some books are meant to be read out loud.
I learned this very important lesson in one of my first college classes. We had to read the Charles Dickens’ novel, Our Mutual Friend (aka, 854 pages of dense, beautiful, terrible sentences that were very easy to get mindlessly lost in), and I couldn’t understand a single page without having to go back and reread it. My teacher insisted that reading Dickens out loud would help, and it did. Often times, the beauty and meaning of a writer’s work doesn’t fully sink in until it’s being read out loud. Now, in the perfect world, every one of Shakespeare’s plays would be acted out in the classroom, and it would be acceptable to read books and poetry out loud in public places. Of course, this is not the perfect world. However, introducing student readers to the idea of reading difficult literature out loud may be helpful in fostering a deeper understanding.

5. Procrastination should be punishable by law.
All students have heard this before. But, procrastination is a hard temptation to overcome because it taunts students with the possibility of activities that are more exciting than staring at blank space on a computer screen. Deep within their hearts, students know that one paragraph a day is a much easier road to success than fourteen paragraphs in one night. But, let’s face it, voluntarily structuring life around a paper is not enjoyable for most. Often times, assigning specific due dates to individual pieces of the project can help students learn time management and complete work with time left over. They might groan when they realize that they can’t push it off ‘til the last minute, but they’ll be thankful when they sleep for more than twenty-five minutes the night before the whole project is due.

6. Needing help is not a sign of weakness.
For many high schoolers (including the one I was), the idea of asking for help on papers and test preparation seems more daunting than it’s worth, simply because criticism is hard to welcome. But needing assistance is nothing to be ashamed of. A student’s goal should be to reach a better understanding of the material (books, literature, thematic questions that teachers probably geek out about outside of the classroom anyway), and students are more likely to achieve this goal if they allow you to help.

7. There is never one clear answer.
This is what is so cool about studying and teaching English: there are infinite ways to interpret literature, endless possible topics to write about, and there is never just one right answer for any of it. Unlike Math, where the pressure lies in answering equations successfully in order to come up with the singular end product that every other person in the universe also should have gotten, English is a subject that fosters individualism and creativity. Basically, logical arguments are all that’s needed in order to prove that a point is correct.

8. Anthology angst.
Let me be more specific: I find that I am much more likely to read assigned material if I have the story or novel in actual book form rather than in textbook form. Large anthologies can be hard to read anywhere but at a desk. In school, they work great. But for homework? Anthologies are heavy. Trying to read an anthology while lying down, holding said anthology overhead, can often result in a black eye. Urging students to use smaller versions (especially of longer selections) for take home reading might increase the number of students who read … especially if they have suffered from such anthology-related injuries as I have.

9. English Majors aren’t always unemployed.
When I tell people I’m an English Major, the disappointment and worry in their eyes is evident. They worry for me, which is nice (I guess it shows that they care), but it’s not needed. The sad truth is that modern students are put under a lot of pressure to be successful in school (this is measured by grades), as well as beyond school (this is often measured by money acquisition). Often times, this means that the road a student is passionate about is not always the road they are most likely to travel by. What I’ve learned recently is this: Success comes to those who work hard, no matter the field. Passion gives students the fuel to work hard, and there is no reason why passion cannot be the driving force behind success in the career world.

10. Dislikable characters do not automatically create a worthless book.
A lot of times, as readers, we zero in on characters — sometimes we love them, sometimes we hate them — and make them into either our imaginary best friends or absolute monsters. Either way, as I said before (see point 7), there is never a singular right interpretation. But, too often, this fictional relationship between reader and character causes us to construct an overarching opinion of the book as a whole. It is essential to remind students that the character isn’t the only influential aspect of a book — plot, thematic elements, dialogue, as well as the rest of the characters, all influence the book and make it what it is. There is a reason the author made the character dislikable. Basically, there is nothing wrong with disliking characters and their motives, but the importance of them in the novel should be taken into account before labeling the book as “not worth finishing” two chapters in.

Rachel Carey is a summer intern at Prestwick House. She is also a senior at the University of Delaware, where she studies English with a concentration in Creative Writing. During the school year, she is an active editor and writer for Caesura and The Main Street Journal, both of which are prominent literary magazines on campus, as well as Vice President of The Blue Pen Society writing club.


Lucy said...

As a high school English teacher, I agree with many of these points, and I do what I can to inform my students, so they may have a bit of a 'jump start' at understanding what you have discovered.

1. Organization is key.
I have my students use a Composition Book for all their notes and vocab, so there are not multiple separate bits of paper that they need to keep track of! I usually give points once a grading period, but in homage to #5 I will consider checking the book weekly this year!

2. Learning is more important than grades.
I always use students learning as examples, and they are always shocked, because they say "but I was just writing the FIRST thing that came to my mind, because I had NO IDEA what YOU wanted." I remind them that it is their learning that I want, not one set 'right' answer!

3. For some, Shakespeare’s language will never be easy to understand.
We act out ALL the significant scenes from the play we are reading. One of their favorites is OTHELLO.

4. Some books are meant to be read out loud.
I have been chastised by my Asst Principal for having my classes (esp AP English Lit for seniors) read out-loud! I will not stop! Especially significant bits or difficult passages, I stop the reader, ask for a summary of action, re-read the passage MYSELF, then have the students discuss and write to a topic (what role is the character playing in the story, what could this item/person/event symbolize, why does the author chose this setting --time/place...) It increases memory of the critical aspects of the book, and for those students that care to pay attention, it increases their enjoyment of the story.

5. Procrastination should be punishable by law.
One item that I use to combat this bad habit, is to ask for proof of working toward completion randomly, without prior knowledge of the 'check' and give EXTRA CREDIT to any student that has work to show toward completion. The more work done, the more points. (Beat them with the carrot.)

6. Needing help is not a sign of weakness.
I reward students publicly for any request for help, then I make that student the 'expert' for answering that question for any students that were not paying attention and ask the same/similar question. It builds their self esteem to answer the question they just asked, and it helps them remember the answer.

7. There is never one clear answer.
Several different answers that are reasonable and WELL WRITTEN are used as examples from each lesson. The students feel good about their work when it is displayed on the 'Promethean Board'. At times I then ask the class what other answers they think might be supported, after they have had time to think of the topic, and have seen some varied answers that are plausible.

8. Anthology angst.
We only use the textbook during class. They NEVER have to take it home.

9. English Majors aren't always unemployed.
Every chance I get to talk about different jobs and careers possible, and the many paths that one can go through to get to each one, but really it isn't until college that most kids realize what it is they might want to do, I just try to let them know that there is more than one way to get there.

10. Dis-likable characters do not automatically create a worthless book.
Did I say that we read OTHELLO? The students LOVE to HATE Iago! ...and they learn that creating despicable characters is one of the difficult jobs that authors tackle. :)

Derek Spencer said...


Thank you for offering a teacher's perspective on Rachel's post! I especially liked your response to #6; I've always found that teaching someone a concept helps me better understand that concept and find new ways to apply it. Plus, helping someone learn something new just feels great. :)

Doug said...

This is a great post, Rachel. I could not agree with you more. In fact, at the risk of committing a ruthless act of blatant self-promotion, most of the items on your list echo the principles that underlie much of PWH's product development.

Lucy, I was also chastised for reading alound to my AP kids and having them read aloud to each other (poetry, no less!).